We all know that food affects our physical and mental health—that’s a given. But have you ever thought about how food affects your pet? “Food is one of the building blocks of life, and therefore key in keeping your pets stay healthy,” says Tori Countner, DVM, a holistic veterinarian in San Diego. “Pet parents should understand that there is no one perfect diet. Each cat and dog are individuals, just like humans, and they’ll need different foods according to their age, lifestyle, breed, gut health, and any concurrent issues.” If you’re looking for ways to give your pet the best diet possible, read on for some advice—along with information on the pet food ingredients you should avoid.
Choose whole foods
“Whole food is best when feeding our pets,” Dr. Countner says. “Even just topping their kibble with steamed veggies, lean meats, fruits and other real foods can benefit them and their health.” It’s a healthy move that will add some welcome variety to your pet’s diet, too. (“Think about if the only thing you ate were protein or meal replacement bars your whole life,” Dr. Countner says.) Choosing whole, fresh food—especially plant-based foods—feeds beneficial gut bacteria, which in turn helps your pet’s whole body stay healthier.
Watch the kibble
Kibble is convenient, but as Dr. Countner notes, it’s also dry and dehydrating—and that can cause inflammation in your pet. Again, fresh food can help your pet. “Food from the earth is for every species, not just humans. By adding in some real food, such as veggies, fruits, and lean meats, it is less taxing on the body,” she says. “At the very least, incorporating some canned food can help with hydration.”
Avoid these pet food ingredients
Commercial pet foods typically have preservatives, which help maintain their shelf life. But, says Dr. Countner, some should be avoided at all costs:
- BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) & BHT (Butylated Hydroxytolune)
- Sodium Metabisulphite
- TBHQ (Tertiary Butylhydroquinone)
- Propylene Glycol
Instead, look for these natural preservatives, which are fine for pets to consume:
- Ascorbic acid and other Vitamin C sources
- Mixed tocopherols
- Vitamin E
Read the label
“There are many great diets out there, but it’s tough to navigate through them all,” Dr. Countner says. Fortunately, pet foods are labeled—and reading them can help you choose the best option for your pet. “The labels should tell you if they meet AAFCO nutrient profiles (Association of American Feed Control Officials), the life stage the food is intended for, and basic nutrient profile,” Dr. Countner says. In addition, some food company websites have details on sourcing ingredients, quality control, and safety measures.
Stick to your budget
Real talk: Not everyone has the budget to buy pricey raw pet food, and that’s okay. “Cost is a big factor when deciding which food is best for your companions,” Dr. Countner acknowledges. “Fresh or raw food can get expensive due to the quality, preparation, and safety protocols that go into making the diet.” If you have time, you can go the DIY route, or simply add fresh food as a garnish to store-bought food.
In the long run, investing in a well-balanced pet diet may cut down on vet bills. “Adding in real food can help with gut health, decreasing inflammation, immunity, and overall systemic health,” Dr. Countner says. “Dogs and cats on quality diets tend to have less medical issues, therefore less trips to the vet, which saves money and enhances their quality of life.”
Talk to your vet
“Age, lifestyle, medical issues, breed, and other factors will determine what type of food is best for your companions,” Dr. Countner says. That’s why consulting with a veterinary nutritionist or veterinarian can ensure that your pet is eating the best mix of nutrients for her age and stage. Dr. Countner says this is especially smart if you’re caring for a young puppy or kitten, since they’re growing quickly.
Aim for improvement, not perfection
As with humans, animals do well when eating whole, fresh foods—but you don’t have to go outside of your time or budget to help your companion thrive. Do what you can, when you can, and your pet will benefit. “Bottom line: Including some fresh food into your pet’s diet can make a big improvement on their overall health,” Dr. Countner says. “It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach to a ‘perfect’ diet.”
Photo: Ian Deneumostier on Unsplash